Advocate | Day of Pentecost

John 14:8-17, 25-27

8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

9 Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. 12 I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. 14 When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. 17 This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.

25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. 27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. (CEB)

Advocate

Today’s text from John’s Gospel has so many theological zingers that I could turn this sermon into a thesis on the Trinity that I guarantee would put most of you to sleep. So, before I start preaching, does anyone need a nap?

This section of John fits really well with Pentecost. Not only because it deals with the Holy Spirit’s role, but because it picks up in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and the disciples that already has the disciples entirely confused. The reason I think the text fits is because we’re often confused about the role of the Holy Spirit, too. What is the Holy Spirit? What’s the Spirit’s role in the community of faith? How do we know if we have it? The Holy Spirit is a bit of an enigma.

This section is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse where he told the disciples that he would die and tried to prepare them for his departure. Judas had already left to betray him, and Jesus was talking about going away and how the disciples knew the way to the place where he’d be going. But the thing is, they didn’t. At least, they didn’t think they did. Thomas asked Jesus how they’d know the way (14:5). When Jesus told them that he is the way, the truth and the life, they were probably thinking, Well, it’s a great line, but it’s hardly turn-by-turn directions on Google Maps. They failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words, even as Jesus turned to the subject of the Father by saying that if they have known him, then they also know—and even have seen—the Father.

But the disciples didn’t get that part either. They couldn’t fathom the mutual indwelling that Jesus described. So Philip piped up and said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us” (John 14:8 CEB). And this is where Philip got chastised by Jesus. The disciples were a Christian community that had walked with Jesus for three or so years, and they still failed to grasp who Jesus is and from where Jesus had come. They didn’t yet understand how Jesus is the essential and full disclosure of the Father.

In fact, Jesus tells them that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. It’s a mutual indwelling to the point that the works of Jesus and the works of the Father are one and the same. Whatever works that Jesus does are perfectly in line with the works of the father: so perfectly in line that Jesus can say that his works are the works of the Father.

Jesus offers a rebuke to Philip, yet it seems that Philip probably wouldn’t have asked Jesus to show them the Father if he didn’t think Jesus could do it. So, it appears that Philip’s problem was that he failed to see the deep connection of Jesus to the Father and the Father to Jesus.

A further problem of Philip is that he still held to the idea that seeing is believing. He wanted Jesus to show them the Father. The Gospel of John uses contrasting symbols that point to belief and unbelief, like light and darkness, sight and blindness. But faith is not based on sight, as Jesus highlighted many times, even in his prayer for us in which he prayed, “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21 CEB).

Seeing is not believing, rather, believing is seeing (c.f. John 11:40). In fact, one of Jesus’ concerns was that seeing can get in the way of the necessity of belief. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 highlights seeing without believing. It also highlights the same kind of indwelling that Jesus has with the Father: an indwelling that we, too, can share with God. The main point of Jesus’ reproach of Philip is to show the disciples—and us—the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and what that intimacy means for all who follow Jesus. We get to share in that intimacy.

Then, Jesus tells the Disciples, “I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 CEB). When we think of great works, we usually think of miracles, signs, and wonders.

But that’s not necessarily what Jesus meant here. The work of Jesus was to bring good news to the poor, to invite people whom the world rejected—people like prostitutes and tax collector—into God’s realm, to set free those who were oppressed by the weight of sin, and release those who were crushed by the oppressive powers of the world. Jesus came to open the eyes of our heart and mind to the good news of God’s healing, acceptance, and reconciliation. Jesus came to show us that God loves us (c.f. John 3:16). Jesus came to show us that God is present with us (c.f. John 1:14).

Jesus did not come to put on a fancy show and do miracles.

The followers of Jesus have done greater works. We are doing greater works. Think about it. Jesus was limited by time and place. He was one person in a small location. His followers have spread around the world. We’ve worked for roughly 2000 years to bring health, comfort, education, and relief to the least, lost, broken, sick, imprisoned, hungry, and hurting. There have been profound failures on the part of Christian people, too, we can’t deny that. But by and large, we’re doing the work of Jesus and, therefore, the work of the Father. The church continues to bring the presence and power of God to bear on human plight throughout the world by befriending the outcasts, housing and feeding the homeless and hungry, serving the marginalized and, in general, speaking truth to the powers of this world by our words and our actions.

We don’t need miracles to show God’s love and compassion. We simply need to remember what Jesus taught, and what Jesus came to do. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 CEB). The expected result of believing in Jesus is that we will keep his commandments to love each other just as Jesus has loved us. Those who love Jesus will love as Jesus loves.

That’s why Jesus provided a way for us to remember his commandments and to teach us. That’s why Jesus also provided a way for us to have the presence of God with us even as Jesus is physically absent. This is accomplished through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told the disciples that the Father would send another Companion. Another, meaning, one instead of himself. The Greek word has multiple meanings: advocate, comforter, companion, mediator, intercessor, and helper. Instead of trying to pick which nuance is meant, I think it’s best to imagine that all of them are meant.

This Companion is identified as “the Spirit of Truth” (14:17 CEB). In verse 6, Jesus stated that he is the way, the truth and the life. If Jesus is the truth, then one role of the Spirit of Truth is to point to Jesus as the truth.

It’s important that we understand that the work of the Spirit of Truth is on behalf of the community. The Holy Spirit was sent by the Father in Jesus’ name to teach the community of everything Jesus had taught, and to remind the community of everything Jesus had said to them. There is a clear connection between the role of Jesus and the role of the Holy Spirit. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit teach us about the work of the Father.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is grounded in belief, not sight. Jesus said that the world can’t receive the Holy Spirit because the world neither sees nor recognizes the Spirit. Christians might actually be lumped in with “the world” here because we don’t see the Spirit either. Yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they know the Spirit because he lives in them—and us—and is present with us.

In both Greek and Hebrew, the word used for Spirit also means wind. The Holy Spirit is like the wind. We can’t see the wind directly, but we can see the effects the wind has on everything around us. We can watch it ripple across a field of wheat or corn. We can see and hear leaves rustle as wind passes through trees. We can feel wind waft heat from our bodies on a hot day, or bite into our skin in the frost of winter.

We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit when the community that follows Jesus makes lunches for kids who are hungry, or when they help children with their homework in an afterschool program, or when they host appointments for people in need to get some financial relief, or when we send out missionaries to serve others in places near and far. We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit in a community of faith when the work of Jesus is being done; when we are loving others as Jesus loves us.

We can know and, in effect, see the Holy Spirit through our belief, which is more than intellectual ascent. Belief is faithful loving and faithful living. Belief is adherence to the commandments of Jesus to love beyond ourselves, deeply, even when we haven’t seen him.

Beyond Jesus’ abiding presence in the Holy Spirit, we’re offered peace. Peace represented by the Hebrew word Shalom is more than a fuzzy contented feeling, but real and tangible peace between people and God. The prophets foretell that the coming reign of God will be characterized by peace. What Jesus offers the community of faith is a taste of this peace now.

The thing is, we still mess up. We still hurt each other, gripe about each other, and do damage to our existing relationships. We live in a world of sin, and we mess up. The peace offered to us by Christ and through Christ isn’t magic. It doesn’t just happen. Peace includes and requires the work of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s part of the work of the Father: to reconcile the world to God and bring about endless peace. Because Jesus offers us peace, the Holy Spirit offers us that peace, too.

The Spirit of Truth continues to teach us and remind us of Jesus’s commandments and examples so that we might love others as Jesus loves us. And loving others isn’t always easy. Oftentimes, we need some direction, if not a reminder, that those who really love Jesus are expected to, themselves, love. Yet, in the Holy Spirit, we have that advocate and teacher. Jesus is never absent from the community of faith because the Holy Spirit lives with us and is with us forever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Advertisements

Word and Deed | 6th of Easter

John 14:23-29

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me. 25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. 27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe. (CEB)

Word and Deed

The lyricist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem about words, and the first stanza says:

Ever the words of the gods resound;

But the porches of man’s ear

Seldom in this low life’s round

Are unsealed, that he may hear.[i]

Ultimately, this passage in John is about words. It is the story of the logos the Greek word, meaning, word or principle. The word of God has come to the human race in many ways. Sometimes people had epiphany-like experiences where God appeared to them, such as Moses with the burning bush, Jacob at Peniel when he contended with the Lord, or Abraham with the three visitors. Other times, the word of God came to individuals in a dream, or a vision to prophets who spoke that word to the people.

But the word that Jesus brought is much more direct. Jesus himself is the Word enfleshed. The words Jesus speaks to us are not his own words; they are the word of his Father who sent him.

At this point in the narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus is not revealing his word to the Apostles. He’s already done that. Jesus has come to the end of his journey, and here, encourages the Apostles to keep the word already spoken, already revealed in his earthly sojourn. In the same way, Jesus is encouraging all of us to keep his word.

Jesus’ word is a message of love and peace, a message of seeking the kingdom of God rather than chasing the vanities of the kingdoms of this earth, which are no more than a chasing after wind. The Holy Spirit is our teacher and helper along the journey of this life. The Holy Spirit is God ever-present among us.

An interesting fact of Hellenistic culture is the close association of the logos with the ergon the Word with the Deed. This feels less true today. In our own culture it’s common for people to say whatever they want and never act on anything they said. The Greeks understood better than we do that words and deeds go hand in hand. When words of instruction are spoken by a teacher, or the words of command are spoken by a parent or leader, or words of advice are spoken by a friend and counselor, those words can be heeded or unheeded, obeyed or disobeyed, acted upon or not. Deeds, whether done or left undone, are linked with words.

Jesus tells us that all who love him will keep his word. More than that, Jesus tells us that the Father will love those who keep Jesus’ word, and God will come to them and make his home with them. If we love Jesus Christ and keep his word, God will love us and actually make his home among us. The book of Revelation says, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3 CEB).

Jesus also leaves us his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV). What kind of peace does Jesus leave us, and what does he mean that he doesn’t give as the world gives? One of the bands I like is the heavy-metal band Metalica. On their black album, they have a song entitled Don’t Tread on Me, where one of the lyrics says, “To secure peace is to prepare for war.” This kind of peace is not the kind of peace Jesus is giving to us.

The peace of Jesus is not the kind of peace brought about by either of the World Wars, either of the conflicts in Southeast Asia, or either of the Iraq Wars, or the war in Afghanistan. In the history of warfare, war has only led to more war. There’s peace for a little while, and everything blows up again. War can’t bring Jesus’ kind of peace, because war never actually settles the issues that caused the conflict in the first place. War can’t bring Jesus’ peace because Jesus’ peace is the peace that God himself bestows upon God’s people.

John Wesley commented on John 14:27 in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament by saying that when Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you,” he is referring to: “Peace in general; peace with God and with your own consciences.” And when Jesus says: “My peace” I give to you, he means: “in particular; that peace which [Jesus] enjoys, and which [Jesus] creates.” When Jesus says: “I give,” he means that he gives: “At this instant.” And when Jesus says that he gives us this peace: “Not as the world giveth,” he means he does not give in a way that is: “Unsatisfying, unsettled, [or] transient; but filling the soul with constant, even tranquility.”

Wesley continues with a prayer:

“Lord, evermore give us this peace! How serenely may we pass through the most turbulent scenes of life, when all is quiet and harmonious within! Thou hast made peace through the blood of thy cross. May we give all diligence to preserve the inestimable gift inviolate, till it issue in everlasting peace!”

This is the peace that will endure for all eternity in the Kingdom of God. Yet, somehow, we can have that kind of peace among us even now as the People of God. This peace is a gift of Jesus Christ for us: now. This peace comes from keeping Jesus’ word.

What are the sources of disquiet, conflict, and anxiety in our own life?

Where do we need to find peace?

Do our finances cause you anxiety? What about our relationships with others? Does our spiritual life—or lack thereof—cause our soul to be disquieted within you? Of course, there are other areas in which we might need a good dose of peace, but money, relationships, and spirituality are three big ones, which is why I mention them.

What does the word of God say about the things that cause turmoil, stress, anxiety, conflict, and disquiet in our lives? Are we willing to listen to the word Jesus offers us and follow his teaching? Because, what the word of Jesus says and what the word of the world says are often quite different. But only the word of Jesus brings peace.

To which word will we listen? Upon which word will we act; that of the world, or that of the Lord who made heaven and earth; who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves? The peace of Jesus Christ comes from living out the word of Jesus in daily life.

Finally, Jesus reminds the Apostles that they have heard him say, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” (John 14:28 NRSV). Jesus then says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” The sentence construction of the Greek text assumes that the first part of the sentence, “If you loved me” is true; that it is fulfilled, and we really do love Jesus.

We do love Jesus, don’t we? (Just checking).

The second part of the sentence defines the result of that statement: “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” So, what Jesus said here is, because the Apostles loved Jesus they rejoiced that he was going to be with the Father. Because we love Jesus, we rejoice that he is with the Father. Jesus is once again glorified in the presence of the Father with the glory that he had before the world was begun. This is the same glory in which we can participate to a degree, now, and then fully when God comes to make God’s home among us when heaven and earth are made new.

Jesus offers us a starting place as followers. We who follow Jesus can live love by keeping his words, which ultimately come from God the Father who sent the incarnate Word to us in the first place. We are invited to make our faith incarnational by practicing it. By living it. And there’s a reason whey we call it the practice of faith. We don’t always get it right. It takes practice, and that includes learning from our mistakes, and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we do make mistakes.

Our actions—the practice of our faith—leads to the indwelling of God’s presence. The way we know and love God is by living the word of Jesus.

This coming Thursday the church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus. We celebrate that Jesus went away from the disciples, which was a source of grief to them. But we also know and celebrate that Jesus promised he’d come to them—and to us. In the absence of Jesus’ physical presence, our daily practice makes the living presence and love of God real and known among our faith community and among the world around us.

Until that day when Jesus comes in final victory, let us keep our deeds together with our words, so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled in us. For we have an advocate, the Holy Spirit—who is with us in our every day—to teach us and remind us of Jesus’ word, which is the word of the one who sent him. May our ears be open to the word and teaching of Jesus. May our hearts be open to the example of a life lived with love which we have in him. And may our deeds reflect the love and peace that Christ our Lord gives.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Words of the Gods, in 1000 Quotable Poems: An Anthology of Modern Verse, Thomas Curtis Clark and Esther A. Gillespie, ed., (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1937), 310.

Home | 5th of Easter

Revelation 21:1-6

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. (CEB)

Home

This text is most often heard at funeral services, and we’ve had a few of those this week. While it is an appropriate text to hear and ponder as we experience grief a person’s death, there’s an aspect of Revelation that we don’t often consider. John’s vision does not merely point to the pie in the sky after we die, but also to God’s presence with us in the here and now.

We may forget, at times, that God is still at work. It isn’t the case that God redeemed the world with Jesus and went to the beach for a break until God decides to send Jesus back. We aren’t waiting for God to finish the glass of holy lemonade before God gets busy with us again. God has been working to redeem and save from the moment creation fell into sin. In fact, God has, is, and will continue to work for the restoration of the whole creation. Apocalyptic literature envisions newness through restoration and transformation, not annihilation or obliteration.

Earth has and continues to be the primary focus of God’s concern, activity, and care. God desires and is working for the healing of all creation. Paul wrote about that, too, how creation itself will be set free from the decay that we human beings subjected it to when we fell into sin. In fact, creation longs for that day. (C.f. Romans 8:18-22).

One thing the visions of Revelation definitely do not support is escapism. The idea of a rapture where all the good and faithful Christians get an emergency evacuation from earth to heaven before things get bad down here simply cannot be supported by the text or by the theology of this book. God created everything for the good of the human race, whom God created in God’s image. Why, then, would God want to get any of us out when this is the place God intends to be? God does not intend to abandon the earth. Rather, God intends to restore the earth and all of creation.

“I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:2-3 CEB).

Surely we realize that God has done this pattern before. God’s Son, Jesus, was sent to earth to be with us. God the Word came to Earth and, as John 1:14 put it, “the Word became flesh and made his home among us” (CEB). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and was poured out and passed around on all kinds of people. God has an already established pattern of coming to us. What John sees in his vision in Revelation 21, is not human beings going up to heaven to be with God. Rather, John sees a restored creation, a new city made by God, coming down out of heaven to be here with us and for us. This is a city where people live together. It’s a perfected embodiment of what human society and culture could be—indeed, what it’s supposed to be.

God has prepared a place for us, a home not made with human hands (Acts 7:48). God is making all things new. The old passes away, but God raises heaven and earth to new life: a new life where death no longer has a say because the sea is no more.

The sea is an important image in Revelation because it symbolizes chaos and disorder. This is no ordinary ocean. This is the sea of primordial chaos in Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea” (CEB). God’s act of creation brought order to the chaotic primordial sea. This sea is where Leviathan dwells. It’s where the dragon emerges in Revelation. This is what Isaiah saw in his own vision which says, “On that day, the LORD will take a great sword, harsh and mighty, and will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the writhing serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1 CEB).

Psalm 74:13-14 also speak of how God will split the sea and crush Leviathan’s heads. These symbols of chaos continually threaten God’s creation. So, when there’s no more sea, there’s no longer a threat.

It’s curious how the beginning of creation prefigures the end. Yet, also how Revelation speaks not of an end so much as a beginning. In much the same way, Paul used the first human beings as a prefiguration of Christ when he wrote, “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 CEB).

So, New Jerusalem is the place—the city—where the God we love and worship stands beside us and lives with us. This is the place God will call home, because it’s with us. God’s home is with us. It almost requires a re-orientation of our imagination, doesn’t it? People always talk about going to heaven, but the vision of Revelation is that God will bring heaven and earth together so there is no longer a barrier between the two. In fact, the two shall become one, like a bride and groom.

Admittedly, Revelation employs some troubling assumptions about women. If we’re going to read the Bible and take it seriously, then we need to be honest about what it says, suggests, and how it portrays things. Revelation only sees women in terms of their sexuality. Cities like Babylon are personified as women who experience sexual exploitation and violence: a prostitute who is burned and devoured by her clients (c.f. chapters 17-18). New Jerusalem is personified as the virginal bride of the Lamb (21:2, 9). The woman clothed with the sun is pregnant and gives birth (c.f. 12:1-17). A woman of Thyatira, whom John identifies as “…that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet…” whose teachings conflicted with John’s, is portrayed as a prostitute who will be thrown onto a sickbed and have her children struck dead (2:20-23).

We have to admit that there are problems with this kind of imagery. At the same time, we can’t ignore it. Lynn R. Huber argues that, I few do ignore it, then we lose the power this imagery conveys (c.f. Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258).

The bride, who is beautifully dressed, suggests her preparation for a transition to a new identity, which is revealed in faithfulness to Jesus Christ that rejects all forms of idolatry and exploitation of others. The bride’s modestly contrasts with Babylon’s opulence. Babylon (which is Imperial Rome) gained its luxury through conquest, exploitation, slavery, and violence. The bride (which is New Jerusalem) provides goodness, safety, and security for all people who call it home.

The imagery also reminds us that weddings are not endings. Weddings are new beginnings. A wedding creates a new family and a new home. This particular wedding creates these things, too, in a restored creation where chaos and sin and death no longer exist.

The bridal imagery should also remind us that our faith in Jesus Christ must be embodied. We have to live it. Our faith should become who we are. Wedding celebrations are full of revelry, food, drink, dancing, and pleasure. I don’t know why we have these stupidly ridiculous images of heaven where people are floating on clouds and strumming on little harps when the image Revelation gives us is a city with streets to walk, life-giving water to drink, and food to enjoy.

If you read farther in chapter 21, you find that the streets are paved with gold and the foundations are set with gemstones. And, there are two ways to look at that. One way is to say that this new city is so opulent that it’s decorated with riches that are almost beyond comprehension. The other way is to say that the things we value on earth are so worthless in the New Jerusalem that they use them as building materials to pave the streets and hold up the walls. Who needs gold and jewels when we have the Living God with us?

In this city, our new home, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death, and mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more because the former things, themselves, have passed away. In essence, death has died. We’re told in verses 7 and 8, which the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out, that those who conquer will inherit these things while sinners get tossed into the lake of fire and experience a second death.

Yet, there are also suggestions that God’s promise is incredibly inclusive. The nations walk in the illumination of God’s glory, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (21:23-24). The gates of the city remain open (21:25) so the nations can bring their glory and honor into the city (21:26). The tree of life bears fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (22:2).

As one scholar put it, “Dare we imagine that the saints’ victory accomplishes salvation for all peoples?” (G. Carey, in Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258). Dare we imagine that powerless believers can conquer the powers of this world through faithful witness? It’s a potent idea. Revelation strongly suggests that our faithfulness to God has consequences now as well as in the future, and that it has consequences for the nations. Can we imagine that? Can we imagine that our faithfulness—here and now—matters?

What have we to fear of faithful witness, whether it’s to people or powers? In the imagination of Revelation, death is hardly the worst thing that can happen to those who follow Jesus. God has already declared: “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6a CEB). God has already accomplished the victory for us even if we can’t see it yet. John’s vision reminds us to repent and to remain faithful.

To me, home—our true home where heaven and earth are reconciled and made new—it sounds pretty good.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Win… By Losing | 4th of Easter

Revelation 7:9-17

9 After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out with a loud voice:

“Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. 15 This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, 17 because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (CEB)

Win… By Losing

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parishioner tell me that the Book of Revelation scares them. I’ve heard those words in every church I’ve served as a pastor. And, I understand why Revelation is a scary book. The first reason is probably that the style of writing is unfamiliar to us. It’s part of a genre of literature called apocalyptic, which includes Daniel 7-12 and many, many other writings. In fact, I have a book on my office shelves that contains more than twenty other writings in the apocalyptic genre.

Another reason Revelation scares us is because there are a lot of wacky interpretations out there, like the Left Behind series of books and movies. While this stuff is popular, it’s just plain wrong. It’s actually bad Biblical interpretation. And these incorrect interpretations scares some people because we don’t want to get left behind when the rapture happens and have to live through the tribulation with the antichrist in charge of the world. I mean, life is tough enough. We face enough difficulty as it is every day. So, we want out of here before even more difficult times come! We don’t want to live through suffering.

Yet, suffering is and has always been a part of the Christian story. If there is one serious misconception of the Christian Faith that John the Seer highlights in this text of Revelation, I’d say it’s the misconception that one of God’s main responsibilities—the thing that God owes to us—is to keep us and those we love safe from harm. And, if or when God “fails” to keep us or our loved ones safe from harm, then our faith can start to fall apart. We can question and accuse God for not doing the job God was supposed to do, for not meeting our most basic expectations. We ask ourselves questions, like, if God is all-powerful, then why wouldn’t God heal my uncle’s cancer? Was my uncle not good enough? Were his wife and children not good enough? Why did they all have to suffer through his illness and death?

Those are questions that grief asks, and I think they’re okay to ask them. I even think it’s okay for us to be angry at God at times, because I also believe that God takes our anger and grief and lives in it with us. Maybe God even asks those same questions of God’s self as we’re wrapped in God’s love and held tight.

Yet, questions remains for us to consider: why would we who follow a tortured and crucified savior expect that God should keep us from harm when Christ, himself, didn’t escape it?

Why should we expect to be kept from harm when all of the apostles but John was killed for confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord?

Paul was beheaded in Rome.

Uncounted Christians were martyred: Stephen, James, Ignatius, Perpetua, Felicity, Polycarp, Blandina – they were all killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Christians have experienced hardship in every chapter of the church’s existence. What part about the Christian Faith makes us think that we should be immune to suffering: that God’s job is to prevent suffering in our lives?

John’s vision in Revelation 7 is of a multitude that no one can count, and they’ve all come out of great hardship. They’re in need of shelter. They have experienced hunger. They have experienced thirst. They have experienced scorching heat. And they have tears in their eyes. This gathered throng of people is not made up of people who are feeling all right, who’ve never been touched by hardship or harm. They have suffered.

Suffering is expected as a part of the Christian experience. That’s why Peter wrote, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13 CEB).

“These are not strange happenings,” yet, it seems that even in Peter’s day Christian people were raising objections to their suffering. We do the same thing, which tells us that it’s a normal part of the human experience to reject suffering as something that we—or anyone—deserves.

But that’s true, too, isn’t it? We don’t deserve to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. It’s wrong when human beings or human institutions cause other human beings to suffer. So, we reject the very idea that suffering is an acceptable lot for anyone—but especially us. I mean, we might not be able to personally vouch for those others—those refugees fleeing violence their homelands for instance, but we know that we’re good people. What we know for certain is that undeserved suffering is unjust, and I think (I hope!) that all of us would say that any suffering is unjust.

But, because of sin and how it gets a hold of each person and each institution we build, the world is not a fair place in which to live. Suffering is a part of the Christian experience because it’s part of the human experience of sin.

But thank God suffering not the only part of the Christian experience. While we should expect to experience suffering, God’s promise is to be with us through our trouble: to be present with us right in the midst of it—and to save us by raising us up to new life. And in that new life, God will care for us in all the ways we might need. In that new life, we’ll no longer live under the rule of sin, so all suffering will be a thing of the past.

This is only one part of what John’s vision teaches us. Revelation is one of my favorite books. As wild as some of the imagery and symbolism is, it’s really not scary. Let me highlight some parts of John’s vision in chapter 7. I’m going to include the first eight verses, too, because they’re part of this section as a whole.

The beginning of chapter 7 is where we’re introduced to the 144,000 who are sealed: 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Dan, if you’ve never noticed). In apocalyptic writings, numbers are symbolic. This number, 144,000, is a multiple of 12x12x10x10x10. The number 12 symbolizes fullness or completeness with obvious overtones of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The number 10 symbolizes the completion of a cycle of perfect order. So, the 144,000 is symbolic of the whole, complete number of God’s people: all of God’s people who are gathered together and who have finished their course.

John hears the number of those who are sealed as God’s servants (c.f. Rev. 7:4). But, when John looks in verse 9, he sees, “a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9 CEB). The image begins with the tribes of Israel, but what John sees clarifies that this group of worshippers includes all kinds of people, from all kinds of places, who speak all kinds of languages, and there are so many of them that they can’t possibly be numbered.

This uncountable throng of people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language should remind us that God’s dominion is more inclusive than our little tribes tend to be, and it should challenge us to strive to love and serve those whom we and our dominant culture would undoubtedly consider the other.

This uncountable, multi-cultural multitude are dressed in white. Colors have symbolic meaning in apocalyptic literature, too, and white means victory. In Revelation, white does not mean purity, as it often does in our cultural context. These people are dressed as victors. And, they have palm branches in their hands. The date palm was a symbol of the Judean kings, which was why the people waved palm branches when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as their king and Messiah (and probably making the Roman soldiers nervous about the possibility of an uprising).

The multitude of people in Revelation 7 cry out in a loud voice, “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10 CEB). But the word translated as victory here is σωτηρία (soteria), and it means salvation. This is actually a cry that runs counter to the official claims of the Roman Empire that salvation—in the sense of prosperity, peace, safety, and security—comes from the Emperor and the Roman State. One of the titles of the Roman Caesars was Soter, which is Savior.

So, this act of worship by those in white robes who hold palm branches is sedition against the Roman State. But that’s the thing we might not realize about worship. Worship is dangerous. Worship is a declaration of loyalty. When we worship God, we are making a statement that no other claimant for our loyalty has it. If you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you might recall that the beast also received worship. When we worship here, we are declaring that God alone has our loyalty over and above every other government, institution, party, and individual.

Worship is quite a statement, don’t you think?

Then, in a conversation between John and one of the elders, we find out that the gathered worshippers have come out of the great ordeal and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. When John first heard of this Lamb, he was described as “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev. 5:5 CEB). But, when John sees the Lion of the tribe of Judah, what he sees is, “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6 CEB). That says something about the power dynamics at play in God’s dominion. The mighty, powerful lion appears as a slaughtered lamb, and it’s the Lamb that has emerged victorious.

The robes of the worshippers are washed in the blood of the Lamb and made white. It’s a powerful image and a powerful statement. Remember that, in apocalyptic literature, white means victory. The blood of Jesus that was spilled in his sacrificial death for us is what has won the victory for us.

And it’s important for us to note that every robe needs washing.

The Lamb at the center of God’s throne will shepherd the people. The Lamb will care for those who have come out of suffering and hardship. The Lamb will guide them to fresh water that pours from the springs of the water of life. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

This is beautiful, not scary.

John the Seer of Revelation reminds us that, if we are God’s people—as we claim to be by our very act of worship—then we can and should proclaim with boldness that salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb. Our witness on behalf of the crucified and risen Savior can and often does bring us into direct conflict with the powers of this world. Yet, no other allegiance matters because victory only comes from the blood of Jesus. New life only comes by dying. Victory is only won… by losing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Witnesses | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB).

Witnesses

Let’s be honest, resurrection is not an easy sell in our modern world. I’d imagine that a lot of us have a difficult time believing in such a thing. And, if we do believe the resurrection happened, many of us hold the assumption that the resurrection doesn’t really affect us right now, there’s no immediate resurrection-impact on our lives, because it’s something that won’t really come into play for us until after we die.

That’s kind of how Karl Marx viewed religion. The reason Marx called religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opium of the people” is because he thought religion promised oppressed and poor people a heaven that is denied them on earth. Thus, songs like The Preacher and the Slave became popular. Its refrain says: “You will eat [You will eat] bye and bye [bye and bye] in that glorious land above the sky. [Way up high]. Work and pray, [Work and pray], live on hay, [live on hay], you’ll get pie in the sky when you die. [That’s a lie!].”

What Marx and, I suspect, many Christians failed—and still fail—to recognize is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t about the future only. The resurrection is about now. The resurrection leads individuals and communities in the conversion of their hearts and minds now.

Part of our misunderstanding of the resurrection comes from the fact that we misunderstand the Gospels, themselves. We read the Gospels from beginning to end and assume that the resurrection is the miraculous happy ending to the story of Jesus. And, hopefully, we’ll get a miraculous happy ending, too when we die. I mean, we love happy endings, right? Even if we read a book or watch a movie where the ending isn’t happy, I at least feel some satisfaction if the bad guys face justice. I don’t like it when they get away with stuff. We want the happy ending that Jesus got.

What we forget—perhaps what we’ve never even noticed—is that the only reason the Gospels were written, the only reason we have the accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, and teaching at all—is because of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the precondition for the witness of the Gospel accounts. The resurrection is the basis for every account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Without the resurrection, we would not have the four Gospels, nor a New Testament, nor a Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to everything. That’s why Easter is the holiest day for Christian people. We all love Christmas, but Christmas only ranks #3 on the list of holiest days on the Christian calendar. Pentecost comes in at #2. Without Easter, without the resurrection, we wouldn’t have the other celebrations.

When Peter visited the house of Cornelius—a Gentile centurion—and preached this message to his household, the foundation of Peter’s witness to Cornelius was the resurrection. None of Jesus’ earlier activities could be understood without the resurrection. That fact is clear in the Gospel accounts. The disciples, themselves, understood nothing of Jesus’ teaching and ministry until after Jesus was raised from the dead.

Only in light of the resurrection did God’s revelation through Jesus Christ make sense. Only in light of the resurrection could Jesus Christ be claimed and affirmed as both divine and human. Only in light of the resurrection could the saving grace offered to us through the life, teaching, and death of Jesus be believed as God’s initiative to save us and be reconciled to us.

Without resurrection, we have nothing. That’s why Paul wrote, “So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection of the dead’? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless… …If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 16-18 CEB). The resurrection is central to everything we believe and everything for which we hope.

The resurrection is also central to a Christian understanding of peace, freedom, and impartiality. And I said, a Christian understanding because we can use those same words in a secular sense and have radically different meanings from the Christian sense.

Peter’s first line to Cornelius’s household is that he really is learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Think about how incredible that statement is coming from a Jew who had lived his entire life in the unquestioned certainty of God’s particularity. God chose the Jewish people, not the gentiles (which is everyone else). Yet, Peter comes to recognize, by God’s initiative, that God does not show partiality or favor. Rather, God offers restoration and inclusion in God’s plan of salvation to all people.

There are whispers of God’s universal love and care for all people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, the promise God made to Abraham included the words: “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you” (Genesis 12:3c CEB). God’s exclusive claim of Abraham’s descendants ended on a note of God’s radical inclusion of all the families of the earth.

The prophet Jonah was sent to a foreign city, Ninevah, so the people there could change their hearts and minds and find salvation in God. When Jonah got angry that God didn’t kill them all, God had to remind Jonah that God cared about those people and even their cattle, too.

We find that same theme in the New Testament, too. When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the angel said, “Look! I bring goods news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people” (Luke 2:10 CEB).

God took the initiative in changing and expanding Peter’s understanding of who is included in God’s plan of salvation. Peter experienced a conversion. His unquestioned assumptions about the particularity of Israel grew into a new insight of God’s expansive impartiality and inclusion of all peoples.

Another piece that we we desperately need to understand—just as Peter had to learn—is that salvation is not our plan. Salvation is not something we do. Salvation is neither ours to offer nor ours to withhold from others. Salvation belongs to God and is offered by God to all. God doesn’t show partiality to one group over another, which tells us that the church can and should become a community of radical reconciliation and peacemaking between women and men, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, between differing cultures and faiths and skin tones and languages.

It sounds nice, right? God loves everyone, and so should we. Yet, Peter’s new insight into God’s cosmopolitan impartiality should not make us feel particularly good about ourselves. We can’t pat ourselves on the back and feel good about the fact that we serve a God who knows and loves everyone. That’s not where this should lead.

Rather, Peter’s insight ought to chasten us because, while we’re called to love everyone, we don’t. Do we? I don’t.

God is the God of impartiality, so we’re supposed to be a people of impartiality, but we aren’t. Are we? I’m not.

God wants us to be in relationship with all kinds of people but we don’t often bother to build relationships with those who are different from us. We don’t have to look much further than the political rhetoric of the day to see how partial our thoughts can be. Much of the time, I act like God is partial, and I assume that God favors my way of doing things. Don’t we all do that?

Yet, the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands conversion. There’s some irony in the fact that Peter became the foundation for the Church’s own conversion in its earliest days. Peter’s name means rock. The image of a rock doesn’t lend itself much to change, yet Peter had his mind changed by God. When the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem questioned Peter about what he’d done, He convinced them that God had accepted even the Gentiles, and the whole church experienced a conversion. If God could change Peter’s mind, then God can change our minds, too.

Peter was a witness to the resurrected Jesus. Peter, along with other witnesses, ate and drank with Jesus after he was raised from the dead. And, it wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection that Peter and the other disciples began to understand the radical social implications of resurrection life.

What we proclaim on Easter is that Christ has been raised from the dead, and Jesus Christ really has taken away the sins of the world. Christ alone is appointed by God as the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Christ is Lord of all.

Christ has been raised from death. And, we are called to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection by living resurrection before the eyes of the world now, by living out God’s radical impartiality now. One of my seminary professors at Duke was fond of saying, “Show me your resurrection.” So, what does your resurrection look like? Like Peter, in what ways do we still need to experience conversion?

We don’t have to wait until we die before living a Resurrection life. We can live Resurrection now. We can live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and in the grace offered to us because of Christ’s work on our behalf now. Resurrection is where our faith begins and ends. The only reason any of us are here today is because Christ has been raised. Resurrection is the message of Easter. And Peter reminds us that everyone is invited to dine at the table of the Lord. Everyone is invited to live as members of God’s family. All of us, together, are the reason Christ came into the world and was raised from the dead.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Goal | 5th in Lent

Philippians 3:4b-14

4b If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. 6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless. 7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

The Goal

We live in a credentialed world. When my wife was working toward her credentials as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, she had to get a Bachelor of Science degree, complete required internships, and pass a test. Only after she met the right criteria could she put the letters CTRS behind her name to show that she had the right credentials in Therapeutic Recreation.

Many fields require credentialing. The credentials are why we believe people when they talk about their area of expertise. The credentials are why we trust people like doctors, nurses, lawyers, therapists, pastors, teachers, meteorologists (sometimes), firefighters, police officers, and so many others. When they have the right credentials, we can trust that they more-than-likely know what they’re talking about in their particular field.

You might not know this, but one of the steps for a person who’s seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church is that we are certified. We are certified as a candidate for ordained ministry. I think it’s an accurate term—despite the negative connotation—because you almost have to be crazy to go into ordained ministry. But they check that too through psychological examinations to make sure that, while we’re certified, we aren’t certified.

There are many autobiographical passages found in Paul’s letters. I think they’re powerful because Paul takes the little story about his life and makes it meaningful by showing us how his story connects to the bigger story of God’s activity of salvation. In this text, Paul lists some of his credentials.

Yet, for us, the idea moves beyond credentials. Because, if we’re properly credentialed, we should become a success. How do we judge our lives as successful? Maybe we can hold up our list of personal accomplishments and achievements. How do we judge others as successful? We probably hold up their list of personal accomplishments and achievements. We might also look at what kind of car they drive, how well they dress, or how big their house is.

This practice of judging successfulness is most visible in the world of professional sports. Before the Colts won the Superbowl in 2007, the commentators all said that Peyton Manning, as great as he was, needed to win the big one in order to be considered one of the elite quarterbacks ever to play the game. After he won, the commentators started to say that he needed to win two Superbowls to be considered “elite.” Even winning it all is never enough. What do all sports commentators still say about Dan Marino? He’s the greatest quarterback who never won a Superbowl. For all the things Dan Marino accomplished, his successes are all tempered by this one lacking achievement.

Let me tell you about myself. How would you judge me?

I grew up at Central United Methodist Church where all the Romains worshipped as a family.

I was baptized by the Rev. Dr. Web Garrison, the former Dean of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

As to zeal, I hardly ever missed a Sunday of worship or Youth Group unless I was too sick to go. God called me to ministry when I was a child so young that I didn’t understand what it meant, and God continued to call until I was old enough to answer.

I graduated from Evansville North High School in 1995, which was the year Redbook Magazine ranked my high school as the #3 academic high school in the United States of America.

I was accepted as a Certified Candidate for Ordained Ministry by the Evansville District of the South Indiana Conference in 1998.

I attended The University of Findlay and graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree. I majored in Environmental and Hazardous Materials Management with an emphasis in Environmental Policy and Compliance, and I had two minors: one in Political Science, and one in Religion. I was even voted the 1998 Homecoming King by the student body. (I have the crown to prove it).

I continued my education at Duke University: The Divinity School, and I graduated in 2003 with a Master of Divinity degree.

I am a United Methodist of United Methodists.

I was Commissioned as a Probationary Elder by Bishop Woody White at the 35th Session of the South Indiana Annual Conference at Bloomington, Indiana on June 06, 2003.

I was ordained as an Elder in Full Connection at the 38th Session of the South Indiana Annual Conference at Bloomington, Indiana on June 09, 2006. Two bishops laid hands on me at my ordination: Bishop Michael Coyner of Indiana, and Bishop Hans Vaxby of the Eurasia Area. Others who laid hands on me were Rev. Craig Duke of the United Methodist Church, and Pastor Will Miller of The University of Findlay who is ordained in the Churches of God, General Conference.

I have served in ministry at a North Carolina state institution, a mission agency of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, and multiple local churches, large and small across North Carolina and Indiana.

I’m 42 years old. I have 3 amazing children, an intelligent and capable wife (which is, of course, the singularly most important thing on my resume).

As a family, we have always given the full 10% tithe to our churches, and we give to other charities as well.

So, what do you think of my résumé? Would you judge me as successful? Or would you say that I’ve not really been successful until I become a bishop?

The thing is, everyone here could give a story of your own grand successes—much grander than mine—be it in business, or farming, or education, or the medical field, or parenting, or volunteer work, or whatever else. We all have something on our résumé that speaks of our success.

Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless” Philippians 3:4b-6 CEB).

If it is all about success, Paul has it made! He’s got every important detail on his résumé. He has all the right credentials. We know that he was educated by Gamaliel, the son Hillel, who of one of the two most influential teachers in the last 2000 years of Jewish history. His heritage and religious achievements are unparalleled!

But then Paul gives us a reevaluation of his life in light of knowing Jesus Christ. He says, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11 CEB).

Let me give you a reevaluation of my résumé. Compared to knowing Jesus Christ, it is all rubbish. My education, my ordination, my financial situation, everything in my life is counted as loss compared to gaining Christ.

Will my education save me? How about my ordination? Won’t my ordination save me? I mean I’m a pastor, for Pete’s sake! No. No. No. In the light of Christ, what the world sees as important becomes unimportant. My life, my achievements, mean nothing without the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. And I can say with all certainty that I would never have achieved a thing in my life had God not provided the way and the means for me to achieve it. Everything I have done has its root, its beginning, in God. Rather than what I have done, any accomplishments I might claim are what God has done in me, what God has accomplished in me, and what I expect God to yet accomplish in me.

In coming to know Jesus Christ, Paul gained a new lens through which he viewed life differently. Paul uses the commercial terms of “gain” and “loss.” Knowing Jesus Christ, to mix the metaphor a little, rearranges the price tags of life in such a way that items we previously thought of as valuable are recognized as worthless, and items once regarded as having little importance are cherished.

The surpassing value of knowing Christ means having a relationship to God that is based on faith in Christ. No credentials of success in life or religion will determine our status before God other than that of knowing Jesus Christ and following his example in faith. We are accepted by God not because of our achievements, but because of the faith we have in—and the obedience we show to—Christ.

You see, knowing Christ is spelled out in terms of participation with Christ, of knowing the power of his resurrection and sharing his sufferings by being conformed to his death. The way Paul writes this is arresting. I would have thought a different order was more appropriate—of suffering and then resurrection, of Good Friday and then Easter, of anguish endured and then resolution. Instead, the reverse is suggested: that the power of Christ’s resurrection leads to and is known in the obedience of our faith and the inevitable strife it brings.

Karl Barth puts it this way, “To know Easter means, for the person knowing it, as stringently as may be: to be implicated in the events of Good Friday…The way in which the power of Christ’s resurrection works powerfully in the apostle is, that he is clothed with the shame of the cross” (Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C, p.234).

So a question for us to consider is: do we see ourselves as being clothed in the shame of the cross?

Paul then tells us his intentions for how he’ll live the rest of his life because he knows Jesus Christ. He says that he hasn’t reached the goal or ben perfected, but he strives to grab hold of Christ because Christ grabbed hold of Paul for a purpose that is bigger than Paul. He said, “Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 CEB).

Like my story, and like your story, Paul’s story is—at the time he wrote this—unfinished. God’s future beckons to us to press on and strain forward to what lies ahead. We have not yet arrived, but we are on our way. God has accepted us, and this acceptance by God can energize us to continue to press forward, to pursue the vocation to which God has called us. Our motivation comes from God’s grace and the promise of our participation in the resurrection. Paul’s story provides a paradigm of the Gospel. It shows us how the Gospel works to powerfully change our view of life and create in us a renewed sense of expectation for the future.

God’s plan for us is not to make us successful according to the way the world views success. God’s plan is to make us faithful, to make us holy, to reveal the power of the resurrection in a fragile body which is subject to death. Whether any of us are successful according to the judgment of the world, or not, it doesn’t matter. In light of Christ; in light of knowing Christ; in light of participating in Christ; our worldly successes and accomplishments are all rubbish anyway.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Economy | 3rd in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! 2 Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. 3 Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. 5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. 6 Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. 7 Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. 8 My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. (CEB)

Economy

If we’ve been paying attention to and participating in the Season of Lent, this text from Second Isaiah seems almost jarring. Isn’t Lent about less, not more? Isn’t Lent about giving up our excesses, not filling ourselves with them? Isn’t Lent about fasting, not feasting? In fact, in most liturgical traditions, we avoid using the word Alleluia in Lent because it’s a joyous, celebratory word. So, what’s with this invitation to feast; and not only feast, but feast for free!? Isaiah beckons us to bask in God’s abundance: to eat, drink, and be satisfied beyond measure. It feels odd for a text in Lent. Yet, what makes this text very Lenten is that the invitation is for us to feast on the abundance that God provides rather than relying wholly on ourselves.

I remember seeing a Reader’s Digest @Work piece that told of a woman who got out of her car to go into work and she saw one of her coworkers heading toward the entrance. She was about to say “Hi” to her colleague when she heard her coworker muttering under her breath, “It pays the bills. It pays the bills. It pays the bills.” She realized her coworker was steeling herself for the day ahead: a day of work she clearly loathed.

At some points in our lives, don’t we all experience the daily grind of work, work, work as grueling and unfulfilling? Even if you’re one of those lucky few who absolutely loves what you do to earn a living, you still might have days when you feel as unfulfilled as this woman in the @Work piece obviously was. Sometimes we have to psych ourselves up just to get out of bed.

If we live in the midst of unfulfillment, it can quickly lead to depression. I wasn’t surprised when, several years ago, a psychologist colleague of mine said that most of the people he encounters every day are living in some stage of depression, whether an early stage or more advanced. “Most people” is a lot of people. I might have even been included in his quantification of “most people,” because ministry—like many other professions—is stressful work. Believe it or not, it isn’t all rainbows and Easter Lilies.

Our culture has many suggestions for overcoming this sense of unfulfilling drudgery. Some of you may have heard of Retail or Mall Therapy. It’s where you go shopping to make yourself feel better. Lots of people do it. But the problem with retail therapy is that by the time the therapy session is over, you’ve only exacerbated the problem. You’ve either added more bills to your credit card statement that have to be paid off, or you’ve blown a hole in your bank account. We kill ourselves in endless circles—not of work and PLAY—but of work and PAY.

This cycle of work and pay causes our worldview to skew toward an assumption of scarcity rather than abundance. We can never feel content when all we see is what we don’t have; when all we feel is that there isn’t enough. And scarcity is scary. It’s frightening to think that we might not have enough. And that fear piles even more stress on us.

But God has something to say about how we live. God offers us an invitation to feast, to fully sate our hunger and thirst. God offers this invitation without a hitch because money is no object. The rich and poor alike can feast on abundance. You can’t buy what’s given for free. God implores us to listen and to eat what is good.

And therein lies another problem. We don’t always want to listen to others. I know this because I don’t always want to listen to others. My kids don’t always want to listen to me. A lot of people think that if the world would just listen to them, then the world would be in a lot better shape than it is. We—Christians included—don’t always want to listen to God. We’re willfully disobedient in more than one way. We can be as hard-headed and willfully deaf to God’s revelation as the rest of humanity.

But God again calls us to listen—incline your ear—and come to God so that we can live—truly live. Those who come to God are party to an everlasting covenant which is represented by God’s steadfast and sure love, as exemplified by God’s love for David. David is set before us as an example of God’s faithfulness. God was with David throughout his life, and God made promises to David that were kept. But, this invitation to participate in God’s providential delight suggests that God’s covenant is no longer a covenant just for David and David’s line. It’s a covenant that extends to all the people.

What is it that we eat? Some would suggest that we feast on the word of God which is nothing short of grace to all who listen to it. I have a Biblical commentary series titled Feasting on the Word. Others would suggest that this invitation is an invitation to change our worldview from one of scarcity to one of abundance and contentment, trusting more fully in God’s gifts.

The prophet tells us to seek the Lord while there is still time, to recognize our sin and turn away from it. We’re invited to return to the Lord and are assured that God will have mercy and will abundantly pardon us from our sins. Fear of God’s wrath has no place here as a way of keeping us from coming to God, because God invites us to come and experience the fullness of God’s grace.

Closely related to humanity’s belief that we don’t need salvation is the fact that most people in firmly believe that our thoughts are like God’s thoughts, and that our ways are like God’s ways. I guess it’s easier to believe in an anthropomorphic God than a sovereign God who reigns above us. One of our favorite things to do is to put God in our box. After all, if God doesn’t think the way we think about what’s good and right, then God’s not a very good God.

It’s easier to try and make God conform to our image rather than recognize that we are created in God’s image. We want God to conform to our way of thinking about life and goodness rather than conform to God’s way of thinking about these things. We want to be the final authority in determining what is good and what merits salvation and eternal life rather than allow God to have God’s say regarding these things. We want God to be our obedient child, while at the same time we fail to recognize that we are God’s disobedient children.

For the people of Israel who were in exile, Isaiah points to the subtle spiritual threat that a life in exile poses for any people who live in exile. They’re invited to conform, to be integrated into Babylonian society and find their security within the confines of that society. They’re ushered into exile with open arms to become captives of transaction and materialism that are foreign to the ways of God, and the Jubilee-style economy of God. They’re enticed to participate in a culture that binds them, even as it appears to free them with an invitation to be a part of this life in exile.

For us, the state of exile isn’t so much a physical dislocation and separation from the Promised Land as it is the dislocation of our lives from reliance upon God. When the principalities and powers lure God’s people away from God’s service by false-promises of wealth, power, fame, authority, accumulation, whatever worldly thing it might be: then, we are in exile. For us, exile is a metaphor for a people of God who have accepted or resigned themselves to their full citizenship and participation in a materialistic world and do not live the life of faith.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, a much as we thought differently. God’s ways and Gods thoughts are much higher than our feeble brains can reach in the greatest height of our imagination. God is infinitely bigger than we are, yet small enough to care deeply about every single one of us: more deeply than even we can imagine.

That’s why we have Isaiah’s invitation in Lent. While Lent is a season in which we ought to practice spiritual disciplines, those disciplines are not ends. Fasting, penitence, prayer, abstinence, Bible study, sacraments, worship, these are pathways through which we move toward and experience the abundance of God and focus ardently on God’s grace.

Every Sunday, I stand before a people who are in exile, and I have to admit I’m right there in the middle of it with you. The difficult part is that we either forget or refuse to accept that we’re in exile. The enticements and lures of the principalities and powers that would draw us away are strong. They’re called “powers” for a reason: they can have power over us if we aren’t careful. If we want to be honest with ourselves during the season of Lent, we need to consider the possibility that we might be more deeply entrenched in exile than is comfortable to admit.

Yet, we have this beautiful invitation where God simply says, Come… Listen… Live…. And we are invited to feast on all the goodness of God. That’s why we gather together for worship in a spirit of confession and forgiveness. And that’s why the prophet’s words should be heard by our ears as a promise—even if it’s a promise we don’t fully understand. We are invited to “Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:6-8 CEB).

Even when we find ourselves in exile, surrounded by all the things the world offers, it’s still true that confession, repentance, and prayer lead to God’s mercy, God’s pardon, and God’s sure, steadfast love. The unending grace of God stands in contrast to society’s unquenchable thirst for accumulation. True abundance is God’s immeasurable and abundant grace.

So, even though it’s Lent, and we’re kind of supposed to avoid being too joyful with words like Alleluia, how can our response be otherwise? Even as we live in a society full of people who are tragically captive as exiles, how can our response to this invitation to God’s abundance, how can the response of anyone who has heard the invitation to turn from exile and receive God’s abundance and grace be anything less than a thankful, joyous, Alleluia!?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen! And Alleluia!